Will constant chaotic change for Senators result in new downtown arena?

The longtime home rink of the Ottawa Senators, now called the Canadian Tire Centre, is pictured in Ottawa on March 12, 2020. (CP/file)

OTTAWA – The on-again, off-again idea of an NHL arena near downtown Ottawa has evolved into one of the following:

a) A cruel boy-cried-wolf joke designed to irritate long-suffering Senators fans.

b) A big-money concept that just couldn’t fly in a government town.

c) A realistic, life-saving move for a reinvigorated ownership that could just catch the last train to the scattered plan and open plain of LeBreton Flats.

If that last one feels like a longshot, it is. But is it any more of a longshot than the concept 31 years ago, on Dec. 5, 1990, of the Senators landing an NHL franchise?

On the LRT ride to Parliament Hill, just past the Bayview Station, passengers are suddenly struck by an open expanse of nothingness. Did they fall asleep and wind up in an urban wasteland? This can’t be the pathway to the heart of the Nation’s Capital – except that it is.

Other than the Canadian War Museum to the south, at the edge of the Ottawa River, there is nothing here but vacant lots, bits of greenspace, construction grit and broken dreams. And that is the point. This 29-hectare stretch of land is known as LeBreton Flats, considered the last large tract of prime undeveloped real estate near the centre of any major Canadian city.

It screams potential, if anyone is listening.

The National Capital Commission, which operates this federally owned space, has taken so long to create anything from this property, the enterprise is a running gag in Ottawa. After decades of complete disinterest in doing anything here, the NCC emerged from a Rip Van Winkle-type slumber to invite development proposals several years ago.

We’ll spare you the gory, roller-coaster details, but a plan submitted by Senators owner Eugene Melnyk and local company Trinity Developments (which has a history of getting things built), was approved by the NCC in 2016, before the partnership split up bitterly, which resulted in the end of the grand "RendezVous" plan and the start of a new concept for LeBreton. Let’s call it a piecemeal, disjointed, mixed-use, who-wants-to-do-something-here? fallback plan.

Oh, but if some group wanted to build something big, such as an arena or museum on one of two designated parcels of land, that is still possible. But please hurry. After decades of refusing to do anything with LeBreton, the NCC suddenly wants the ideas in place by the end of February 2022.

This announcement prompted Melnyk to tell Postmedia last week that “We’re always open and interested in a new multi-purpose entertainment facility at LeBreton Flats.”

Now, this is the same owner who told broadcaster and podcaster Bob McCown in May that “I’ve ruled out going to LeBreton.”

So, to put faith in an idle comment is admittedly a massive leap following an unprecedented string of flip-flops. We have to go downtown. ... Yay! We won the bid to go downtown. ... Who needs downtown, Kanata is where we will stay. ... But now, hey, downtown might be an idea ...

And yet – what if Melnyk had new ownership partners or if the NHL decided that it really is in the best interests of the franchise to move to LeBreton and used its considerable influence to make it happen.

“The door is open,” LeBreton project director Katie Paris said in a Zoom call with reporters recently. “We understand that the Senators owner has been vocal in the media about looking for another location for the arena. If it’s of interest to him or to the Senators, then the door is open.

“But we also want to make sure that we get going on this project,” she added. “So we are looking for other ideas and we want to make sure that we consider the whole range of ideas before moving forward.”

The NCC has asked for ideas to build on two parcels within LeBreton, which the commission hopes will feature major attractions. The first site is six acres, the smaller one, 1.2 acres.

Through the revolving door, Erin Crowe back as CFO

In recent weeks there has been widespread speculation of a makeover at the top of the Senators organization. As well, multiple sources have confirmed that an investigative media story is in the works related to the way in which the club conducts its business at the highest levels.

Amid this talk, change is already afoot in the executive offices. Chief financial officer Gregg Olson and Jeff Morander, vice president of ticketing, hired just 12 months ago, are both gone, fitting a common pattern in the organization. Executives quietly leave this team within a year or two and the revolving door swings.

It isn’t hard to imagine the pushback from ownership when things aren’t going well. When Peter O’Leary was chief marketing officer, in emails Melnyk berated him regarding ticket sales, and even his job title. O’Leary, fired in the fall of 2016, launched a $1.55-million lawsuit against Melnyk and the Senators to recoup bonus money and salary, and though the matter was settled out of court, the emails became part of the public record.

That average attendance of 18,084 in 2015-16 seems like a dream today. The Senators are 31st in league attendance, with an average gate of 11,428 after 13 games at the Canadian Tire Centre. That a senior executive would get blamed for the poor ticket sales is consistent with the pattern and par for the course.

The list of departed executives is lengthy, dating back to franchise co-founder Cyril Leeder, the longtime president and CEO, let go in January 2017, in part for going to bat for O’Leary.

In the past five years, the club has burned through top executives – Tom Anselmi, Jim Little, Nicolas Ruszkowski and Aimee Deziel as well as numerous chief financial officers.

I am told there is more change to come.

Part of the transformation has been announced – former CFO Erin Crowe is coming back to shore things up. Crowe, named executive VP and CFO, is to start in February. Could her arrival pave the way for further departures and possibly new ownership partners? Let’s see where this goes, but the speculation about change at the top of the Senators organization has finally grown beyond the Senators fan base and onto the radar of national media.

Last week, respected Hockey Night in Canada and Sportsnet insider Elliotte Friedman spent part of his 32 Thoughts podcast with Jeff Marek discussing stability issues in Ottawa:

"Look, there are a lot of rumours. Is Melnyk selling? What’s going on behind the scenes there? He’s still talking about a downtown arena. I mean, things are kind of all over the place. They’re all over the map. The commissioner protects his owners, and I get that. That’s his job. I get it. I just wonder at what point do you say, 'We’ve got this group of young guys here and we can’t let the overall instability or the way the franchise is run at the top affect them.'

"I’ve seen too many young players in sports, and not just hockey, be affected by losing. It hurts their careers and that’s why, Jeff, I look at if at some point in time, the league will step in here and say, ‘We have to have this franchise run a different way.’

"Look, I know there are people in Ottawa who believe this – ‘If we get a downtown arena, everything is going to be OK.’ Yeah, but even if they put the shovel into the ground tomorrow, how long is that away? You have to build stability around these players. You have to give them a feeling that they’ve got a chance to win. I just think that right at the top, I just wish the league would get to a point where they step in and say, ‘OK, there’s a way that we’re going to demand that this organization is run.’"

Financing and developing the Senators young core into a salary cap-spending contender is part of a broader concern in Ottawa about the stability of the franchise. An influx of fresh capital and fresh voices to work with the NCC and city of Ottawa on building a new downtown arena, and a better relationship with the region in general, would be a godsend. Not to mention, the concept of stability and peace inside the walls of what is a chaotic office environment.

If Melnyk does sell the team, it will be worth a lot more today than at any time during his 18 years of ownership. This week Forbes magazine valued the Senators franchise at $525 million (all figures U.S.), 28th in the NHL but up 22 per cent from its assigned value one year ago, up 48 per cent in five years.

It’s worth noting that the Edmonton Oilers franchise value doubled in one year to $1.1 billion, in part related to their state-of-the-art arena that opened in 2016. The New York Islanders, with their new UBS Arena, jumped 83 per cent in value in one year, to $950 million.

What would a new downtown arena mean to the valuation of the Senators?

If it all seems too good to be real – a stable, revamped Senators organization building a new central arena as part of a bright future, it might be. It’s an idea the Senators fan base has dared to dream about before and grown cynical on the notion.

But just remember that 31-plus years ago, people lined up to tell Bruce Firestone, Cyril Leeder and Randy Sexton they were crazy for thinking Ottawa would ever get an NHL team. You know how that dream turned out.

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